Trainers labor back in pack

Horse racing: Dale Capuano finished '98 among the nation's top 10 in wins, but, as with all Maryland trainers, recognition is elusive.

January 07, 1999|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

The old pickup had a hole rusted through the floor, and when Dale Capuano used to haul his own horses to Penn National or Charles Town, he could look down and see the asphalt rushing by.

The years have rushed by nearly as fast. Now 36, Capuano has been training horses in Maryland for 18 years -- half his life. He completed 1998 tied for ninth in wins among U.S. trainers. For the third time, his horses earned more than $2 million in one year.

Yet Capuano, like other leading trainers in Maryland, is not well-known outside the mid-Atlantic tracks. Maryland thoroughbred racing is something of a secret to the rest of the country. The industry chronicler, the Daily Racing Form, hasn't stationed a reporter here in years.

Except for Robert E. Meyerhoff, a Marylander, the nation's leading breeders don't send their top horses to Maryland trainers.

"Opportunity in Maryland is not very great," Capuano said this week, sitting in his office at his Laurel Park barn, ruminating about racing's past and racing's future. "Look what happened to Gary."

Gary Capuano, Dale's younger brother by a year, made a splash nationally in 1997 with Captain Bodgit, winning the Florida Derby, Wood Memorial Stakes and finishing a close second in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Preakness.

"He did a tremendous job with that horse," Dale Capuano said. "Nobody could have done any better. But when all was said and done, he came back to Maryland and got maybe one or two new owners. It really didn't get him very far."

If Gary had been based in Kentucky, New York or California, he probably would have attracted several new clients who might have filled his stalls with high-priced, top-notch talent.

But back in Maryland, where few marquee events draw outsiders' attention and near- constant racing promotes a numbing sameness, Gary Capuano and the other horsemen grind it out day after day, week after week.

Dale Capuano has thrived in this environment, building his stable from a couple of horses at the beginning of the 1980s (when he drove the rusted-out pickup) into one of the state's elite by the end of the '80s.

For the past decade, conditioning about 50 horses at a time and supervising 25 employees, he has ranked among the winningest trainers in the country. But that hasn't placed him among the richest.

Purses in Maryland aren't bad, but they're steps below the nation's best. In 1998, while Capuano won 128 races tying him for ninth, his $2.1 million in earnings placed him 42nd.

He toiled with the blue-collar, hard-knocking thoroughbreds that populate Maryland barns. They deserve as much respect as the Skip Aways and Silver Charms, but few if any flash the neon lights of stardom on a national level.

"Maryland racing needs something," Capuano said. "Whether it's slots or whether the state needs to do more, purses need to go up."

He examined the next few days' races, noting that recent cutbacks had cheapened a race from $27,000 to $22,500.

Capuano said that he has mixed feelings about slot machines, but that "if we got slots and they did the same for us as they've done in Delaware, we'd probably have the highest purses in the country."

He glanced out his window at the forlorn Laurel Park backstretch, frozen and nearly deserted at the approach of noon.

"Look at these barns," he said. "They're raggedy, they're old. The whole stable area needs to be bulldozed and rebuilt as far as I'm concerned. But that takes money."

Nevertheless, Capuano stressed that, "Maryland has been good to me." Year-round racing has enabled him and other horsemen the rare luxury of establishing permanent homes.

Capuano, who is single, lives about a five-minute drive from Laurel Park.

In a good year, he gets away on vacation for maybe 2 1/2 weeks, but a horseman never escapes. Even on vacation, Capuano is on the phone every day to the barn, to owners, to racing secretaries.

"It doesn't usually stop," he said.

He even claims horses while on holiday. That's how he fills more than half his stalls, by buying horses out of claiming races, in which every horse is for sale for a designated price.

That's how he obtained Wind Splitter as a 2-year-old for $23,500. The next year, 1989, Capuano started Wind Splitter in the Kentucky Derby. He finished 11th.

Capuano hasn't been back, except for 1997 when he went with brother Gary and the explosive, late-running Captain Bodgit.

There's no telling when either brother will return to the country's most publicized race because, as Dale said: "In Maryland, chances of coming up with a Captain Bodgit, or anything resembling that, is very slim."

1998 national trainer standings

Trainer Starts 1st 2nd 3rd

Dale Baird 1,461 299 227 198

Jerry Hollendorfer 922 241 156 132

Gary L. Johnson 784 149 121 107

Gerald S. Bennett 611 142 112 69

Bruce M. Kravets 622 142 107 72

Bob Baffert 538 138 91 80

Bill Mott 582 136 99 64

Bernard S. Flint 619 133 98 83

Dale Capuano 642 128 111 89

Joe Petalino 546 128 71 82

William P. White 679 128 118 95

SOURCE: Daily Racing Form

Pub Date: 1/07/99

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